Artists’ wives in brief
- Around 1900, many male artists painted monumental portraits of their wives
- The breaking up of gender roles is reflected in the paintings, which show confident and liberated women
- The paintings often express considerable respect for the woman’s independence and strength, but some also bear witness to an underlying fear of woman as the inscrutable 'other'
- Quite a few artists’ wives were not only passive models but artists in their own right who functioned as pioneers for positioning women on the art scene
Around the year 1900, traditional gender roles were breaking up. Women, who throughout the 19th century had been synonymous with their roles as wives and mothers, were now working actively for the right to vote, a right to education and work and the right to control their own body. The most progressive ones threw away the constrictive corsets and started wearing the loose 'reform clothes' of the day.
At the same time, the woman was, as always, a favoured motif in art, but with the new trends in society followed different depictions of women as strong and complex. Peter Nørgaard Larsen writes about L.A. Ring’s portrait of his wife Sigrid from 1897:
“The painting of Sigrid in the open door, poised between inside and out, is a tribute to his young wife, who, symbolised by the flowering garden, brought spring into Ring’s life. Several Danish artists made related monumental woman- and wife portraits in the decades around 1900. The paintings express a very different perception of the female gender than the Biedermeier and late romantic period’s one-sided idolisation of the woman as mother. Around the turn of the century you encounter a woman who’s at ease with herself, graceful as well as strong, and clearly in possession of both body and mind.”
L.A. Ring was just one of many male artists at the time who painted large and charged paintings of their wives. Often, these women weren’t just models, they were artists themselves. This is true for Anna Ancher, who was painted by her husband Michael Ancher as a strong and erect person, whom he clearly respects. The dog next to Anna underlines this with a gaze full of confidence and expectation. Apart from being a depiction of the couple’s dog, it doubles, as is often the case in art history, as a symbol of fidelity.
Harald Slott-Møller’s portrait of his fiancee, Agnes Rambusch, later Agnes Slott-Møller, who was also an artist, is even more clear in its depiction of a modern, liberated woman. The art historian Ingeborg Bugge writes:
“The critics were used to seeing artists’ wives and fiancees portrayed as gentle, soft and adorable and often with an unmistakable erotic appeal to the viewer. This kind of traditional womanhood was not what Harald Slott-Møller wanted for Agnes when he set about painting her portrait. On the contrary, she comes across as one of the 1880s emancipated women. Autonomous and visionary with a well defined contour against the wide bright background, emancipated and relaxed, with her hands free and her arms hanging lose, stable and unyielding (...) Finally, the painting’s considerable size implies that the viewer is put face to face with this proud amazon in 1:1. She’s your equal.”
According to Emil Hannover, one of the most notable art historians at the time, the portrait of Agnes was originally meant as an illustration of The Modern Breakthrough’s motto “Light in the land, that’s what we want.”
A de facto role model for the educated, autonomous and dynamic women of the day.
J.F. Willumsen belongs to the group of male artists who were inspired by the new emancipated type of woman. In connection with meeting his second wife, Edith Wessel, there’s a clear change in the way he portrays women, culminating in his monumental painting A Mountain Climber. The model in the painting is Edith, but Willumsen has stylised her distinct figure, so that it rises above time and place. Thus, her individual person is transformed into a powerful symbol of the modern, autonomous woman who self-confidently conquers the world and contemplates it with a dignified expression. The conquerer of nature is a woman! Peter Nørgaard Larsen sees the work as an expression of vitalism in the early 20th century.
"… Edith Wessel, has elevated herself to the top of the world and beholds the immense mountainous landscape. As a depiction of the 'new', and in the Nietzschean sense 'great human being' in nature, one cannot imagine a more powerful expression of man’s command of and union with nature."
A slightly different angle can be found in the writings of art historian and art therapist Lise Buurgård, who chooses to interpret the painting in an art psychological context. This entails that woman and nature enter into a kind of symbiosis. Here, the idea of the woman of the times merges with the ancient tradition of perceiving the female gender as in a pact with nature.
This leads her to describe Edith as “the real mountain in the picture, the mountain which Willumsen, in a psychological sense, must conquer."
P.S. Krøyer also used his wife Marie Krøyer (born Triepcke) as his muse and model in numerous paintings. The paintings of Marie are often interpreted symbolically, but here the woman is not a symbol of the new times or vital powers of nature. On the contrary, Krøyer almost always depicted Marie as an introvert and melancholic figure, very beautiful to contemplate, but also dissociated. The art historian Peter Michael Hornung gets all romantic when he interprets the large painting of Marie on Skaw Beach:
“She is the contemplator of nature, who seems to have entered into a symbiosis with the landscape, she’s contemplating. The evening air and the sea, lit up by the moon, has now engulfed her and made her into an incarnation of her own mystery. The gentle, the melancholic and the romantic, which one associates with a place like this at that particular time of day, embrace her and consolidate her position in it. As a modern caryatid, she stands there on the plinth of the beach in a long, gently draped dress and supports the sky with her head.”
Like Willumsen, Krøyer lets his wife symbolise the connection between woman and nature. But for Krøyer, this connection creates only distance. If Edith is a mountain, ready to be conquered, then Marie is the quietly retreating tide, always just out of reach. Krøyer’s painting of his wife therefore becomes more than just a portrait. It’s an expression of deep fascination and longing, but also an experience of an insurmountable distance to the woman he adored. The story about the wreckage of their marriage is almost as well known as the legendary summers in Skaw.
Ejnar Nielsen’s symbolistic portrait of his expectant wife Marie Thaarup is everything but a romantic representation. She is depicted in 1:1 and in such extreme detail that she appears to be a real person who is suddenly frozen like a statue inside a pitch black room.
It is thought provoking to look at a motif, which is about an imminent birth and giving of new life, in such a dark and sinister setting. But all Nielsen’s paintings from around the turn of the century are marked by melancholy and death. He has used his wife’s pregnancy as an opportunity to paint a symbolistic painting of pregnancy, a condition where the woman lends her body to a new link in the lineage and moves one step closer to death. At the same time, Nielsen emphasises that the tiny life growing in the woman is fragile. The dark and sinister framing of the motif leads your thoughts towards altar and grave.
If you look at the painting long enough, it’s like looking into the darkened tomb where both mother and unborn child are pre-destined to end, eventually.
More than muses
Women have been the motif for men’s art over centuries. But in the years leading up to 1900, many women were working on becoming something more than symbolic figures and muses to male artists.
The painting Appraising the Day's Work is painted jointly by the couple Anna and Michael Ancher. Anna has painted Michael and vice versa. The painting is a testimony to one of the rare instances of a male and a female artist living and working together in mutual respect around 1900.
Anna Ancher, Agnes Slott-Møller, Edith Willumsen and Marie Krøyer were all artists themselves, trying to make it in an art world which wasn’t at all used to perceiving women as creative individuals. Many had to give up along the way, often because they got married and had children. Then it was expected of them that they shelved their artistic ambition and focused on their role as a housewife. Anna Ancher and Agnes Slott-Møller were a few of those who stayed on track and it’s very much through their pioneering work that women later acquired their own voice and a place on the art scene and in art history.